Touring a State Capitol 'Dungeon' and Other Renovation Stories
States Rush to Fix Capitol Buildings After Years of Decline
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin literally had a nose for news when she took a group of journalists on a tour of the state Capitol’s basement “dungeon” in January. Gas from raw waste fouled the air, the result of collapsing sewer lines underneath the century-old building. But the nasty odor didn’t bother a hairy-legged bug crawling out of its moldy, moist habitat to say hello. “Ooh, there’s a big cockroach,” Fallin said.
Oklahoma State Capitol Dome photograph by Serge Melki
The Oklahoma Capitol is one of many statehouses around the country that need fixing. Visitors enter the building under scaffolding so they don’t get bonked on the head by falling rock. The south steps are blocked off by a plastic yellow safety fence, a photo of which Fallin stuck on the front of the state budget book. “I did that on purpose to make a point,” the Republican told Stateline. “It’s embarrassing to have barricades and scaffolding outside when the public comes to visit.”
Though Fallin stands out for her passion, she is not alone among state officials seeking capitol makeovers. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett also have called for money to repair their declining capitols, as have officials in Alaska, Colorado, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon and Wyoming.
Elsewhere, there has been a little-noticed capitol renovation boom. New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin have refurbished parts of their statehouses in the last few years, and major restorations are winding down in Illinois and Kansas. More than two-thirds of the states have carried out upgrades since 2000. They range from minor fixes, such as North Carolina replacing the carpet in the House and Senate chambers, to Virginia spending $105 million to restore its capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson, in time for director Steven Spielberg to film scenes there for “Lincoln.”
The dilemma for elected officials is how to justify the expense of overhauling capitols after years of cutting spending on just about everything else. Oklahoma’s House rejected a plan backed by Fallin last year to borrow $200 million for statehouse repairs, with lawmakers in both parties saying they didn’t want to pile up that much debt. She was back this year with a modest proposal to spend $12 million to fix the crumbling limestone that threatens visitors and develop a plan for the rest of the renovations. Lawmakers agreed May 1 to delay a planned cut in the income tax rate, freeing up $60 million in each of the next two years for the renovation. Fallin is expected to sign it.
“This is no different than a person taking care of their own home,” Fallin said.
Historic and Expensive
Oklahoma’s neighbor to the north, Kansas, has spent more than any other state on the 12-year, $332 million restoration of its capitol building. Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican who has cultivated a reputation as a fiscal conservative, did not start the project but backed a plan last year to boost spending by $17 million to wrap it up. “It’s gorgeous,” he said, “but expensive.”
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